Students find them intimidating, nothing more than columns of more or less random variants to be stumbled through and memorized. But all words have etymologies, even the irregular forms of verbs. Etymology is really nothing more than asking how a word became the way it is. The inquiry is normally confined to root words (nouns, adjectives, infinitive verbs, and so on), but the question may be asked of particular forms too. In fact, it should be asked of particular forms, especially those for which no intuitive explanation comes readily to mind. When we do so, we find that a lot of the so-called irregular forms aren’t really so irregular after all. Let’s look at some examples.
In the Germanic languages
English has a large number of so-called irregular verbs, close to 200 of them. Moreover, these are among the most commonly used of all English verbs. It’s been estimated that when you use a verb in everyday English conversation, something like 70% of the time it’s one of the “irregular” ones. But most of these are not really (or were not originally) irregular. Rather, most of them followed very specific, if fairly complex, rules for changing their internal vowel. This process is called ablaut, and it runs the whole gamut of the Germanic language family, from the earliest recorded languages to the present day. Students of Old English often encounter the terminology of “strong” and “weak” verbs — which is another way of saying the same thing.
Even today, when we have lost touch with the rules that made these verbs more regular, we can still detect patterns. Consider just a couple of the representative classes: (1) ring, rang, rung; sing, sang, sung; spring, sprang, sprung; (2) blow, blew, blown; grow, grew, grown; know, knew, known; show, shew, shown; throw, threw, thrown. Notice shew, the original past tense of show, unfamiliar to most of us today but still in use as recently as 1915. This form has now been supplanted by a seemingly more “regular” form, showed. In reality, though, the attempt to regularize the verb has really made it less consistent with other verbs of its class. And this process of “regularization” is gaining momentum. Consider: hang, hung, but also hanged; plead, pled, but also pleaded.
Some verbs are irregular in English for a different reason. Ever wonder why the past tense of go is went? Or why we have to be, I am, I was? Phonologically, these forms have nothing whatsoever in common. As it happens, went is the past tense of wend, a verb synonymous with to go but almost extinct in Modern English. It clings to life in a few phrases such as “to wend one’s way”, and in computer programming constructions such as WHILE … WEND. But while wend has all but wended away, its past tense, went, has stuck around, stuck to a different verb! Lingusts call this process suppletion. In the case of to be, we again have forms from two different Old English verbs: beón and wesan. As a side note, in Old English, gán “to go” had yet a different irregular past tense: ic gá “I go”, but ic éode “I went”. But I digress.
In the Romance languages
A major class of Romance verbs represents the case of simple erosion, a process occurring in all languages all the time. Erosion occurs for many reasons, from easing pronunciation to nothing more than laziness. There are innumerable examples in English — e.g., every, pronounced “evry”, probably pronounced “probly” (even “prolly”), walked pronounced “wakd”. And how about one from French — est-ce que pronounced “esque”. Eventually, the spelling of these works is likely to change. But to return to verbs, where this kind of erosion or contraction has occurred, traces of the older, “uneroded” verb form survive in different forms or tenses of the modern verb, right alongside newer forms.
Think about the following Italian verbs: bere “to drink”, versus bevo “I drink”; dire “to say”, versus dico “I say”; fare “to do”, versus faccio “I do”. Where did these consonant changes come from? In turns out that bere is contracted from an older form, bevere, dire from dicere, fare from facere. These earlier forms may be found in the works of Dante and Boccaccio. And seen in this new light, the forms bevo, dico, and faccio look much more regular. We find the same phenomenon in French, where the verb boire “to drink” has “irregular” plural forms buvons, buvez, boivent. Why? Again, because of older form(s) of the infinitive, beivre, boivre > boire. We find boivre and beivre, in illo ordine, attested in the twelfth-century Roman de Renart and the thirteenth-century Fables of Marie de France.
Another class of Romance verbs appear to be irregular only because two verbs coalesced into one — suppletion again. This explains the case of Italian andare “to go”, versus vado “I go”, French aller / vais, Spanish ir / voy, Portuguese ir / vou, Catalán anar / vaig, and so on. What we have here is a pair of Latin verbs, īre and vādere, both meaning “to go”. Rather than one verb winning out over the other entirely, we ended up with surviving forms from both. Why? So far as I know, that’s a mystery. But it’s a mystery taken up with remarkable consistency into Latin’s many daughter-languages! Not quite so irregular as things might first have appeared, eh?
Learning how irregular verb forms originated makes remembering them much easier. Typically, there are three major explanations for irregular forms. (1) Ablaut, or the changing of internal vowels to convey grammatical information; these are the “strong” verbs of the Germanic languages. (2) The erosion or contraction of forms over time, as in the examples of Italian bere and dire. And (3) suppletion, where forms from independent (synonymous) verbs coalesce into a single verb in the modern language.
These are hardly the only reasons verbs become irregular — I haven’t touched on changes due to orthography, or brought about by historic vowel and consonant shifts — but if you take the time to learn how these three broad classes operate, you will be surprised how often those troublesome irregular verbs begin to fall in line.